Hollywood loves to tell Victorian love stories

Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Dickens in "The Invisible Woman," the story of the Victorian novelist's longtime affair with the young Nelly Ternan. Via Sony Pictures Classics.
Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Dickens in “The Invisible Woman,” the story of the Victorian novelist’s longtime affair with the young Nelly Ternan. Via Sony Pictures Classics.
Victorian England in love. Few periods personify the energy and inertia of love like Victorian England. The way falling in love makes us want to upend everything in our lives, yet also makes us afraid to take even one step forward.

The era of Queen Victoria serves as the perfect setting for the bravery and fear of love. A period that was both inventive and repressive, an era of explorers and reactionaries, an era of breathless excitement and fear. And who better than the writers who captured the era to fall in love in very Victorian ways?

No wonder Hollywood loves stories about Victorian writers in love.

blog-wimpole-streetIn 1934, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” tells the story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. One of the great romances that almost never happened.

As a young woman, Elizabeth Barrett is already an accomplished poet, but she remains under the thumb of her controlling father. Mr. Barrett, who deeply distrusts romantic love and passion, has forbidden anyone in his family to marry. Elizabeth resigns herself to spending the rest of her life in her father’s oppressive house until one day a young poet named Robert shows up at the front door.

Robert has already fallen in love with Elizabeth’s poems and offers to take her away to Italy. When Mr. Barrett gets wind of the plan, he tries everything he can to separate the lovers, even attempting to take Elizabeth far away to recover from one of her mysterious illnesses. The poets eventually run off and elope, defying Elizabeth’s father and becoming an iconic symbol of romance.

blog-devotionSpeaking of family drama, there’s the Brontes. The 1946 film “Devotion” tells the story of perhaps the most famous literary sisters of all time, Emily and Charlotte Bronte. Not only do we get to visit the famous sisters but also their less-famous siblings, Ann and Branwell.

Charlotte and Ann have decided to take governess positions to help their brother Branwell pursue his dream of becoming a painter. While they are away, Bran and Emily become friends with Arthur, who has come to work with their father, the local vicar. As they become better friends, Emily falls in love. The story complicates when Anne and Charlotte return home. Arthur and Charlotte fall in love and Bran fails as a painter and falls deeper into despair.

Arthur and Charlotte eventually separate. Charlotte, to try and help her brother and further her education, and Arthur, to avoid hurting Emily by marrying her sister. Eventually all the Bronte sisters would become celebrated authors, but the tragic stories they wrote were often mirrored in their own lives.

blog-miss-potterNot every author with a tragic love story wrote tragic love stories. “Miss Potter” tells the story of Beatrix Potter, better known for her beloved children’s stories, and her publisher Norman Warne. Although Norman helped make her famous, Miss Potter’s parents object to the relationship on the grounds of that good old Victorian standby: class difference.

Despite the objections, Beatrix and Norman are determined to be married and even agree to a separation to prove their devotion Beatrix’s parents. While separated, Norman falls ill and dies. Heartbroken Beatrix retreats to the country where she buys a large estate that will eventually become the Lake District National Park.

invisible_womanClass warfare, controlling families, artistic passions, mysterious diseases, lovers separated by all manner of obstacles! This is the backdrop for “The Invisible Woman,” the love story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan.

An isolated novelist and a married schoolteacher have an affair in the most proper of times. What is it the appeals to us so much about knowing looks in drawing rooms? About wanting the wrong people at the wrong times? The slow build to passion always seems more satisfying to us, the audience.

Whatever it is, the modern romance with Victorian affairs in film continues March 14 with the Filmworks presentation of “The Invisible Woman.”

Fae Giffen studies at San Jose State in the School of Library and Information Science graduate program. She volunteers as a marketing assistant for Filmworks.